‘Honest’ Aldersgate needs justification

Donald Haynes has the first in what promises to be a series of posts about John Wesley and Aldersgate. Haynes sets out in this piece to reduce what he sees as a mistaken view of Wesley as a spiritual icon without any days of doubt or struggle.

I have to admit, I do not run very often into the false idol Haynes is trying to knock down. To the contrary, I meet lots of United Methodists who are only too ready to nod when told about Wesley’s flaws, faults, and doubts. From my experience, the people called United Methodist do not suffer from an overly credulous or reverential treatment of John Wesley.

In Haynes’ effort to show that Wesley was not a monolithic figure, he brings in the venerable Richard Heitzenrater to assert that Wesley’s theology shifted in significant ways over the course of his ministry. Of course, whether this is true or not depends a great deal on what we mean by significant, but I personally have never been overwhelmed by the arguments that Wesley shifted ground on any of the bedrock commitments in his theology. There was some change, but the Wesley of the 1780s was preaching and advocating essentially the same things that the Wesley of the 1740s was.

Haynes appears concerned that we make the Aldersgate experience too important to Wesley and therefore to our theology, but it is hard to imagine how we could make too much of it. For Wesley, Aldersgate was about justification, and justification never dropped out of his theology. Indeed, he can be found highlighting the need for a Christian to experience both conviction and justification in his sermons, his journals, and his letters into the late years of his ministry.

We might argue that not everyone has to have an Aldersgate experience to be justified, but the experiences of 1738 were hugely influential on both John and Charles Wesley. If you doubt that, try singing “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” or “And Can It Be” or many other hymns without being hit square in the face with the language of justification.

If there is a rash of over zealous Wesley heads out there who insist that John Wesley never experienced any doubts and never struggled with temptation and sin, well, I suppose they do need to be corrected. But I do not think the proper corrective is to suggest that Aldersgate was a minor event in Wesley’s faith. If we teach that, we risk teaching United Methodists that justification and conversion are optional or even detrimental to the life of faith.

13 thoughts on “‘Honest’ Aldersgate needs justification

  1. This is needed pushback. I was saddened to read Haynes’ article.

    I think his piece may have been edited since I first read it as it is missing one detail I was especially concerned with.

    Aldersgate matters when you look at how his whole way of thinking changed, as you note. Ken Collins points out that after Aldersgate Wesley stops writing about fearing death in his journal which was prominent before. 10 years later it looks as though he may die and writes his own epitaph; the fear is gone.

    It wasn’t a small thing and as a Methodist I knew of Wesley’s faults before I ever knew his theology!

  2. Aldersgate Reconsidered is a great collection of essays on the event and the historiography of it (Haynes draws on it in his article). I think many of the authors, including Maddox, lean towards a view of Aldersgate as an experience of assurance, not necessarily justification.

    And in my little part of the world in the Bible Belt, I’ve heard pastors preach that Wesley wasn’t “saved” until Aldersgate. What we never hear is how very shortly after Aldersgate Wesley was says he is not yet a real Christian. Also significant is how little Wesley draws on the Aldersgate story in later writings (his spiritual grandyoungins seem to find it much more interesting than he did later in life).

    From “A Tradition History” by Randy Maddox in Aldersgate Reconsidered, p. 145:
    “…the emphasis of these studies has generally shifted from the discontinuities to the continuities in Wesley’s religious development…As a result, while a few continue to view Aldersgate in conversionist terms (e.g. Maser 1978), the more common tendency is to identify Aldersgate as the time when Wesley (already a Christian) received a deeper sense of assurance, which empowered him for a life of obedience and ministry…”

    …and, one page over in the concluding paragraph of the essay and the book…
    “At the moment, it appears that the most adequate reading of Aldersgate is that which focuses on the place of assurance in Christian life.”

    Of course, Wesley is always a bit like the historical Jesus, we often see ourselves (whether what we want is a Wesley who struggles with faith, or a Wesley who has a single event that changes everything). It seems the leading edge of scholarship – and yeah, Maddox was my Methodist prof and I am biased – leans more towards Aldersgate as time of assurance rather than conversion. In this observation, Haynes is not saying anything new.

    1. I am aware of the Maddox and Heitzenrater argument about Wesley’s personal theology and history. I’ve never been persuaded by it. My reading of his works does not show me the same things he sees.

      This topic deserves more discussion than that, but I am needed at my job … so perhaps later.

    1. Thank you for this link. This is the article that originally irked me.

      This in particular was troublesome: “Many years later, in 1774, Wesley re-read his journal entry of Jan. 28, 1738, where he wrote, “I . . . was never myself converted to God.” He made this note: “I am not sure of this.” The older, more mature Wesley did not doubt his being a Christian before Aldersgate.”

      He did pencil in “I am not sure of this” as to having never known God. I would take that to means that he was NOT SURE of whether he still believed that to be true. Haynes takes “not sure” and decides that means he “did not doubt.” I don’t see how someone can make that jump.

    1. Thank you, Jason. Excellent article. (It is worth the free admission for anyone who is curious.)

      A brief quote: “My point here is that while the early, embellished stories of the Wesleys make for bad history, there is also a sense in which they can help to make history by shaping religious identities. Thus I suspect that the Wesleys’ role in world Methodism, both historically and presently, above all concerns the ways in which the popular stories about their lives have helped to shape an understanding of the Christian life in which three things are paradigmatic: conversion, evangelistic and missionary zeal, and a life of humble and joyful obedience before God. These stories, I suspect, may actually help to account for the rapid spread of Methodism in many world areas. Within the complex cultures of the modern missionary movement, revivalism, and the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, the Wesleys have functioned primarily as exemplars of a form of Christian piety that demands replication.”

      This last paragraph of the article is exactly on the point of our discussion here, but I’ll let you go read it yourself.

  3. Perhaps Methodists need to talk more about Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in light of what follows. I often feel that Wesley’s “heart strangely warmed” gets equated with an emotional spiritual reaction and thus fails to capture the change in his life and habits. There’s nothing wrong with emotions in worship but Christianity goes deeper than that. And sometimes I think we’re missing that fact in the church today.

    1. No doubt, although with Wesley, most of the habits did not change much — other than a year later when he took to field preaching. He was a zealous pursuer of works of piety and mercy before Aldersgate. Indeed, this is why he was so convinced that these works alone could not save.

  4. I think many Methodist evangelicals especially in the South are invested in making “justification” the equivalent of what Southern Baptists mean by “getting saved,” which it isn’t. The reason I’m Methodist is because I had to “get saved” three times before it worked, which is impossible according to the Southern Baptist theology I grew up with but permissible under a theology that officially includes the concept of backsliding even though nobody talks about it anymore since Methodism has become Baptist.

    I don’t think that justification needs to be a light-switch irreversible, instantaneous event. I realize that Wesley officially preached justification as an event and sanctification as a process and illustrated the two as a linear sequence, but I’m not sure he was as absolutely committed to this as Southern (Baptist) Methodist evangelicals need for him to be. I can’t retrace the exact steps by which I came to see both as dynamic realities referring to our degree of trust in Christ’s sacrifice (justification) and our degree of transformation by the Holy Spirit (sanctification) but Wesley’s writings were part of how I came to that conclusion along with the cyclical synergy of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love in the ordo saludis of Aquinas.

    1. The longer I am in conversation with Methodists about Wesley, the more I realize how handicapped I am by coming at Wesley by reading him directly rather than by being told about him by others.

      It is intriguing to me that anyone who wears the name “Methodist” would ever come close to “once saved, always saved.” I know there are lots of people out there who do that. I just don’t understand how they can do so if they have any actual contact with Wesley or historic Methodism.

      I appreciate the scouting reports from the South. As a Midwestern Methodist, I run into different issues.

      1. I think I’m particularly tuned into this to this because I specifically made a decision to leave behind the “Once saved, always saved” theology I grew up with. I love my Bapto-Methodists. I’ve got a lot of them in my church. In some ways, they’re more my people than cradle Methodists, but I can’t go along with them on their understanding of salvation.

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